We place a vast amount of trust in the veracity of the information provided on food packaging. For those with food allergies, their lives can depend on the information that the packaging provides. For those who are dieting (whether for personal or medical reasons), ingredients and calorific values both have to be spot on. Then there are the cooking instructions – a mistake in the details of how to cook products such as pork or fish could have fatal consequences. That’s why there are so many rules and regulations around food labelling. It’s also why translating food packaging is such a serious business.
Food labelling – the legal context
Food labelling requirements differ from country to country. In the UK, the law requires that food and drink products must have labels that are permanent, easy to read and understand, easily visible and not misleading. The label has to include the name of the food, a ‘best before’ or ‘use by’ date, quantity information and any necessary warnings.
These warnings include allergen information and a range of specific warnings relating to certain ingredients or preparation methods. For example, foods and drinks with more than 150 mg/l of caffeine must state that they are, “Not suitable for children, pregnant women and persons sensitive to caffeine.” Meanwhile, raw milk must state that “This milk has not been heat-treated and may, therefore, contain organisms harmful to health.”
Where a food product has two or more ingredients, these must be listed on the label, with the main ingredient first and the others following in weight order. Common allergens must be highlighted as part of the list.
The UK and all other EU countries are required to comply with the Food Information for Consumers (FIC) regulations that came into force in December 2014. While those regulations ensure a certain degree of consistency across food packaging produced within the EU, they have no bearing on edible items from further afield. This makes for an interesting situation for food translators working on packaging for countries with different labelling requirements.
Food packaging translation – where to start
If a company is looking to sell its products overseas, it will require a professional food packaging translation service. Such a service does far more than simply convert words from one language to another. Part of the role of professional translators is to localise the documents that they translate. For food packaging translators, this means that they need to be aware of food labelling requirements in the country for which the packaging is being translated.
Of course, the actual translation has to be flawless as well. Spelling ‘pea’ as ‘pee’ is definitely not something that should occur when it comes to professional food packaging translation!
Food translation fails
On that note, the internet provides us with a wealth of hilarious examples of food translation that has not gone well. Restaurant menus are rich pickings, with ‘roasted husband’ and ‘fries pulls out the rotten child’ all available to those with a taste for the unusual. There has also been a number of high-profile food translation and localisation fails, from Burger King’s PooPoo Smoothie to Nuclear Lozenges and Göteborgs Rape.
While scrolling through such errors on the internet is an amusing way to spend a couple of minutes, for the companies making those errors there is a more serious side to the mistakes. Reputational damage is bad for any business but can be particularly hard for food companies to bounce back from. Many consumers can’t help but wonder if a food company that cuts corners when it comes to getting translation right may be paying less attention than it should in other areas, such as hygiene and food safety.
A food packaging translation lesson
An English supermarket that opened in Portugal a couple of years ago provides us with an excellent example of the damage that incorrect food labelling can cause to a business. The owner had gone to great expense to import the products and set up the store ready for his grand opening. As both Portugal and England were within the EU and bound by the same regulations, he was confident that the English products he was selling would comply sufficiently with the FIC regulations to enable him to in turn sell his products in Portugal without issue.
Sadly, making assumptions when it comes to food labelling is never a good idea. On the day his supermarket opened, the local police arrived. They advised that his shop would need to remain closed until every single product had been given a label in Portuguese, rather than English. The task took nearly four days to complete, while stock gradually edged closer to its use by dates. Customers who had been offered opening week discounts had to be repeatedly turned away, hardly a good start for a business that would be relying on local trade to stay afloat.
The right approach to food translation
Taking the right approach to food translation means engaging a specialist food packaging translator at a very early stage of the project. Different languages use different quantities of words to say the same thing, which can have a bearing on packaging design, particularly within the EU where there are legal font size requirements for food labels.
Consulting with a food translation specialist at an early stage in the process means that there will be no undue delays later in the project. Early engagement means the translator can be on hand to assist with any packaging design queries that arise and can ensure that the translated content is ready the moment that it is needed.
Food translation and marketing
While there is a great deal of focus on the legal requirements of food packaging translation, it should also be remembered that there is a marketing element to this as well. Food and drink manufacturers include logos, straplines and a variety of brief marketing messages on packaging wherever room permits. A breakfast cereal, for example, might include a mention of it being whole grain and good for the heart. Other products might boast about the naturalness of their ingredients.
Whatever the message, it needs to be translated in a way that will sound just as effective in the translated language as it does in the original. This requires a certain element of localisation, to ensure that messages come across to the audience as they are intended to. Marketing is another specialist translation field, requiring a delicate balance between expressing the intended message and suiting the local audience. It can also include an element of localisation when it comes to packaging. For example, in some Asian countries, white text on a black background is considered unlucky. A food marketing translation specialist will be able to offer advice and guidance on such matters to ensure that any cultural missteps are avoided.
Needless to say, with so many factors at play, machine translation should be avoided at all costs. Computers are highly capable when it comes to swapping words in one language for words in another. However, their ability to translate considerately when it comes to marketing copy simply cannot compare to that of human translators. Nor will computers offer the insights and experience that specialist translators will when working with a business on its food or drink packaging translation.
Additional food translation considerations
There are a few other areas to consider when translating food packaging. If, for example, the item in question has a link to the manufacturer’s website (as many products do these days), then is that website available in the same language as the translated packaging? If not, should it be? Or is there a local version of the site address that the packaging should include instead?
The same question applies to customer care numbers. Is there a support line available that serves the newly translated language? If so, that number will need to be included. If not, is the original language number still appropriate to include, or should a postal address be provided instead?
Careful consideration also needs to be given to food and drink products that might fall into the category of medical products. A slimming shake in one country might be classed as medicinal, but not in another country. The classification that it is given will impact significantly on the labelling requirements, so must be checked at the earliest possible opportunity – before any translation work begins.
Food translation specialists
For all of these reasons, food and drink packaging should only ever be translated by specialist translators and translation agencies. Legal compliance and marketing requirements both need to be taken care of as part of the translation process. Food and beverage manufacturers who are undertaking their first packaging translation will need plenty of support and guidance during the process. A decent translation agency with specialist skills can prove invaluable and can save a company from both financial and reputational damage. A packaging redesign and reprint are a costly business, so the earlier the translation team can be involved, the better.